Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – A review

GileadGilead is a novel that is one of President Obama’s favourite books. It is widely acclaimed as a book of meditative calm and spiritual intensity. Despite its success with a secular audience it unusually has a lot of openly religious content. This is because it deals with spiritual issues in such a personal way.

Chief character in Gilead

Revd. John Ames is a Congregational minister and the chief character and narrator. He had experienced great sorrow for a long time in his life after the death of his wife and daughter. Many years later when 69 years of age however he meets and marries his second wife, Lila, who is much younger than him. The book is in the form of a letter to their seven-year old son who will have few memories of him as now he is elderly and dying of a heart condition. Poignantly he writes “How I wish you could have known me in my strength.”

How religious views are expressed in Gilead

What the reader gets are anecdotes described in a companionable way. The book has a quiet gentle almost mystical feeling of peaceful old age – a letting go of the things of life. John remembers grief but never without comfort, and loneliness but never without peace. Recalling his life he writes “Strange are the uses of adversity” for he is a preacher who is able to share his private thoughts about everyday ordinary conversations that describe such difficulty. In my view he does this without preaching at the reader. He gives his religious views in a non-righteous way. “Avoid transgressions – How’s that for advice.”

Main emotional issue in Gilead

He writes his  memoir from a position of strong religious faith despite his suffering and a knowledge of his own limitations and failings. His inner spiritual struggles and concerns are clearly revealed. John’s emotional difficulties are about being a lot older than his wife and child. In the “crouch and squint and limp and lour” he feels the extent of his old age disguises what he has become inside.” He doesn’t want to die as he has not completed his “errand” in life and hopes he is not presuming on the Lord’s patience.

Spiritual depth in Gilead

The book is deeply reflective. He often mentions prayer. To a non-believer this just appears to be superstitious time wasting until it is realised John is talking over with his Lord how he might change and understand better a situation with the aid of inner light; learning to think more graciously about those he meets and act more cordially towards those he dislikes. “I have the dreadful habit of taking the measure of a conversation early in terms of the pleasure or benefit I can expect from it or what I might accomplish through it.”

The topic of life after death in Gilead

On the topic of life after death John writes that the Bible offers no definitive picture. His friend says he has more ideas about heaven everyday. “Mainly I just think about the splendours of the world and multiply the smell of the grass by two, the brightness of the stars by two…” Talking of his next life to his son John says “I certainly don’t mind the thought of your mother finding me a strong young man.” Regarding hell he writes about the lot of the reprobate – how their torments are “figuratively expressed to us by physical things – unquenchable fire” and so on.

How theological issues are raised in Gilead

On faith he comments “If the awkwardness and failure of religion are interpreted to mean there is no care of truth in it – these people are disabled from trusting their own thoughts, their expression of belief.” But regarding the question of predestination he  seems hesitant and it is left to Lila to say “What about being saved? If you can’t change there don’t seem much purpose in it.”

He reaches for Calvin’s writings but also has read other thinkers. Of his father he says “How ignorant did he think I was? I have read Owen and James and Huxley and Swedenborg and for heaven’s sake Blavatsky.”

Jealousy and forgiveness in Gilead

John had suffered at the hands of mischief making of the son of his best friend. This boy Jack Boughton when a young man left the local area in disgrace after getting pregnant a girl who he abandoned in poverty. Now in his forties Jack reappears on the scene much to John’s discomfort especially when Jack starts to pay attention to Lila and John’s son. John says “I have never been able to warm to him, never”. He mistrusts Jack and worries he may do harm to his wife and son given his history of “sly meanness.”

We sense jealousy. But he is trying to forgive. The way he puts it is to say that anger with someone can be relieved by remembering that the other’s transgressions are trivial besides one’s own.

Deeper intuitions shared in Gilead

We get his deepest intuition about God at the end. “There is no justice in love, no proportion in it and there need not be because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal – so how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?”

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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